Is free speech a “disaster”? Syracuse University appears to think so. While many schools hold fire or earthquake drills, Syracuse’s Department of Public Safety saw fit to stage a protest drill. On July 30, police practiced subduing and arresting a large crowd of mock protesters in the center of campus.
The event came as a surprise to many in the Syracuse community. Prior to the exercise, students received a sparse email notifying them that a “mock disaster/training drill” would take place on the quad. However, the email did not specify what type of emergency would be addressed.
“The implications that [the protest drill] has are deeply troubling for students and in urgent need of analysis and debate,” said Erin Kinsey, an organizer of Syracuse’s chapter of Youth and Student ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism).
According to the plan, a rowdy group of phony protesters holding signs assembled on the quad. Some of the actors behaved aggressively by swinging baseball bats and, with the help of the fire department, setting a trash can on fire.
“The scenario portrayed student protesters as unruly instigators of violence,” said Kinsey. Although Syracuse has been the site of a handful of protests in the past year, none of them are believed to have gotten out of hand.
The drill comes in stark contrast to Syracuse University’s official policy of “Scholarship in Action.” Syracuse’s list of tenents include “educat[ing] fully informed and committed citizens,” “provid[ing] access to opportunity,” “strengthen[ing] democratic institutions” and “inform[ing] and engag[ing] public opinion and debate.” It would seem from this policy that Syracuse students not only have the right, but the responsibility to engage in protests rather than having their participation viewed as a criminal threat.
“If Syracuse University truly wants to practice ‘Scholarship in Action’, it should support the rights of students to free speech and encourage political organizing instead of interrupting our learning and working with a heavily policed role-play that equates student protests with a disaster requiring a military response,” said Kinsey.
Indeed, if an academic institution is concerned with an influx of dissent on its campus, that is an indication that it is time to open up dialogue with its students rather than stifle their speech. And while few would argue that the police couldn’t use some practice in learning how to more appropriately handle protest scenarios, that does not mean rehearsing tactics to shut down and arrest protesters more efficiently.
Photo Credit: John Marino